Commentary: How better politics make a stronger and more open Internet

Americans don’t agree on much these days — but everyone knows our politics isn’t working.

Even the simplest of issues are no match for the spinmeisters, and policy argument has been replaced by viral meme. It’s a plague that undermines the very idea of meeting in the middle that has been fundamental to our progress.

And the open internet appears to be its next target.

Internet openness – or neutrality – is a foundation of the economic, social and cultural success of the online ecosystem. It ensures broadband providers don’t block access to lawful websites, throttle traffic, or harmfully discriminate against apps or services online.

Two years ago, the FCC enshrined these basic principles into law. And while there was a healthy debate over the need for regulation – since the internet was already open and working well – the basic principles of openness and neutrality were not controversial.

What was controversial, however, was a related decision by the FCC to “reclassify” broadband service as a “Title II” utility to increase the FCC’s authority. That was not necessary to protect net neutrality but it gave the FCC new power over the growing broadband economy.

But that overreach has now backfired in a massive and deeply unfortunate way.

New leadership at the FCC has voted to move forward with plans to reverse itself and undo the unpopular “Title II” decision, a wise move to ensure the internet holds onto its “permissionless innovation” culture and can continue to grow and expand.

But in the polarized and irrational Washington culture wars, some fringe voices seem determined to use the repeal of Title II to also destroy net neutrality – opposing bipartisan action to keep the net neutrality baby in place while the Title II bathwater is drained out.

It’s no surprise conservatives have always opposed intrusive Title II regulation. But many on the left opposed Title II as well.

The NAACP and Communications Workers of America have argued it would undermine network investment and eliminate jobs that are particularly valuable to workers of color. Others warned it would drive up consumer costs and threaten pro-consumer innovations like free data plans.

And now two years in, we see investment running flat at some ISPs and one study found a $4 billion investment drop in just the first two years of Title II. And many experts predict far deeper investment cutbacks yet to come.

So, the FCC is on strong footing repealing the dangerous Title II – but only if the popular and important net neutrality principles remain in place.

Some activists on the left, however, seem determined to gin up a firestorm around this issue that will make a bipartisan net neutrality replacement difficult. Even though they nominally support an open internet, these absolutists seem determined to exploit the complexity of this debate to tar anyone who opposes Title II as an enemy of net neutrality.

That kind of all-or-nothing rhetoric is great for fundraising and building email lists. But it’s a disaster for policy – and for the vital project of keeping the internet open.

This is a moment where real compromise and progress should be possible. As the FCC repeals Title II and embarks on an uncertain new process, everyone has something to lose – which also means everyone has something to gain. Fertile ground for Congress to step in and solve the problem once and for all.

An open internet statute would permanently lock in a signature achievement of the Obama years for progressives, while giving business the certainty and predictability conservatives have championed.

It’s a moment of truth for the activists and meme brokers and even the late-night comics who say they care about the issues – not just ratings and clicks. Will they seize the moment and support forward looking action?

Or will they burn down net neutrality just to have someone to blame when the next election rolls around?

Lewis is executive director of the Progressive Policy Institute.

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